Tag Archives: Freedom Papers

Virginia’s Lost Papers

By Kyle Rogers, LVA Newspaper Project volunteer

As part of an ongoing effort to give voice to nineteenth-century African Americans through digital projects like Virginia Untold and Virginia Chronicle, the Virginia Newspaper Project has identified nearly 500 advertisements posted by free African Americans during the antebellum era and the Civil War (c. 1800-1865) concerning their freedom papers. The example, below, was published in the Richmond Daily Dispatch on July 12, 1859:

Two "Lost-Free-Papers" notices from the Richmond Daily Dispatch, July 12, 1859

These notices were grouped with other advertisements for lost or stolen goods, and they could even be found on the same page as rewards posted for the capture of runaway slaves.

Freedom papers, or “free papers,” were protective documents that certified a free African American’s non-slave status.  Frederick Douglass, as usual, best explains the legal and personal significance of free papers to their bearers:

It was the custom in the State of Maryland to require of the free colored people to have what were called free papers. This instrument they were required to renew very often, and by charging a fee for this writing, considerable sums from time to time were collected by the State. In these papers the name, age, color, height and form of the free man were described, together with any scars or other marks upon his person which could assist in his identification. This device of slaveholding ingenuity, like other devices of wickedness, in some measure defeated itself—since more than one man could be found to answer the same general description. Hence many slaves could escape by impersonating the owner of one set of papers… The operation was a hazardous one for the lender as well as for the borrower.  Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself. pp. 245–246.

A free African American’s papers constituted a legal affidavit which identified him read more »

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